To people of a certain age, it seemed like the Grim Reaper was working overtime in 2016 — particularly when it came to claiming the lives of famous people. But while we certainly said goodbye to a long list of beloved household names last year, the number of memorials may not have been out of the ordinary.

To figure out whether 2016 was really abnormally fatal for famous people, a group of researchers at MIT crunched the numbers — first by setting a baseline for fame established by counting the number of language editions of Wikipedia that include entries devoted to a person. For the purposes of the study, anyone with 20 or more editions ranks among the famous. While acknowledging the limitations of this definition, the researchers argue a persuasive case for their methodology.

"Consider the singer David Bowie," reads the study's introduction. "In Wikipedia you can read about him in 104 different languages. How about the actor Gene Wilder? 84. And the economist Thomas Schelling? In 48. Certainly, this does not mean that Bowie's work was more, or less important, than that of Schelling. It simple means that more Wikipedians (and probably more people) are aware of Bowie's songs than of Schelling's theories (which is reasonable, given the global popularity of some of Bowie's songs)."

So what did they find? Ultimately, while the number of famous people dying has increased markedly since the year 2000, that makes sense, given that the number of famous people overall has jumped exponentially as our methods of communication have grown. "The slope that emerged with the popularization of shorter forms of printing, like journals and newspapers in the late seventeenth century, increased with the introduction of new communication technologies, like film, radio, and television," notes the study. "So in the twentieth century we produced famous people at a rate we never did before."

That being said, 2016 actually saw slightly fewer famous deaths than the trend established by previous years indicated — something we may not have noticed because, as the researchers argue, those who died last year tended to be particularly well-known. The median age of the deceased has risen over the last several years, which has contributed to a class of famous deaths populated by celebrities with longer careers — and whose fame was, as the study notes, "amplified by television."

All of the above may seem to suggest that we'll see even more famous deaths in 2017 than we did last year — and that the trend will only continue to increase as time goes by. The former might be true, according to the researchers, but not the latter; we're living in an age of niche audiences fragmented by a growing array of cultural delivery mechanisms, which has had a reductive effect on the nature of fame. Put simply: Celebrity seems to be growing more fleeting, and by the time the stars of today die, they may not enjoy anywhere near the level of notoriety they have now.

It's a conclusion that might be worth its own MIT study. In the meantime, the researchers' findings are well worth looking into in full — and you can check out the complete study summary.

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